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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Big Voice: God or Merman?, Theophilus North and Carousel

Also see Richard's reviews of Insignificant Others, Andrea Marcovicci Sings Rodgers & Hart and Connie Champagne: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road


The Big Voice: God or Merman? is an Entertaining and Entirely Beguiling Evening of Musical Theatre

Big Voice
Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin
Steven Schalchlin and Jim Brochu have finally brought their charming and hilarious The Big Voice: God or Merman? to San Francisco. I first saw the show at the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival on a rainy night in Manhattan and I thought it would be perfect for our city by the bay.

The Big Voice: God or Merman? is entertaining full houses at the Decker Theatre in the New Conservatory Theatre Center through August 19th. This fast-paced comedy is full of indisputable zingers, with Steve and Jim telling their stories with self-belittling humor. Jim Brochu tells of how as a staunch Catholic growing up in the Bronx he wanted to become a Pope but found out later he was better suited to being like Ethel Merman. The audience learns how Steve Schalchlin grew up in a small Arkansas town with strong minded, God-fearing Baptist parents; students at the redneck high school called him a faggot. However, there also is a certain amount of humor in his telling of these stories.

Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin met on the cruise ship Galileo (the sister ship of the Andrea Dora) in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle. Steve was playing piano in the Fantasy Lounge, and the story of their meeting is hilarious. Things become more serious when Steve discovers he has developed AIDS. He thinks of suicide until Jim gets him out of his negative feelings. The pair go on to write a musical, The Last Session, in 1997 which becomes an Off-Broadway success.

These are two very talented men who keep the audience entertained for two hours and five minutes. They talk about the sacred and therapeutic powers of their lives in the showbiz world. Their words are inspirational not only for homosexuals but for anyone who has had problems with identity. This is a totally entertaining show.

Most of the fourteen songs by Steve Schalchlin with additional lyrics by Marie Cain are wonderfully diverse and contemporary. Steve is very moving when singing "Where is God?" after he has been diagnosed with AIDS in 1994. The two sum up their comical courtship with the melodious ballad "Near You," which is beautifully performed.

The Big Voice: God or Merman?plays at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness, San Francisco through August 26th. For tickets call 415-861-8972 or on line at www.nctcsf.org.

Photo: Ed Krieger


An Amiable Production of Thornton Wilder's Theophilus North

Theophilus North
Jackson Davis, Zehra Berkman and Mark Anderson Phillips
TheatreWorks is currently presenting the west coast premiere of Theophilus North based on Thornton Wilder's 1973 semi-autobiographical novel and adapted by Matthew Burnett. This play is a captivating cousin to Wilder's Our Town. The stylish drama plays at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through August 12th. Leslie Martinson has assembled a dream cast of gifted Bay Area actors for the charming two-act play.

Theophilus North is about a young man, fresh to the world and loaded with charm and curiosity, who finds himself bound up in the lives of others. The drama takes place in 1926 where 30-year-old Yale graduate Theophilus North (Mark Anderson Phillips) wants a more adventurous life than that of a school teacher in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. As he says, "The time has come for me to dive into the world and rejoice at the ripples I make." Theophilus buys a car and travels north. His car breaks down in the wealthy resort of Newport, Rhode Island, where he decides to spend the summer befriending the local people. He is hired as a tennis instructor, a reader of books to a bored wealthy wife, a "doctor" to a rich old man who is psychologically homebound, and a French mentor to a childish young man. Theophilus is a saint on earth who becomes part priest and part psychiatrist. He has an answer for every problem.

Mark Anderson Phillips gives a performance as rich as the material. He is high spirited in every endeavor Theophilus takes on. There are acidic touches about his performance that make Theophilus very human. Craig Marker is beguiling as a teenager being taught French by Theophilus. When the talk gets around to sex, he smiles like the cat that ate the canary. There is a brief, charming play within a play spoken in French by the two. For a complete change of pace, Marker is moving as a husband who doesn't know how to love.

Zehra Berkman plays many parts and is particularly exceptional as the pregnant Myra Granberry trying to bond with her drifting husband through Shakespeare. Kristin Stokes gives a striking performance as the greatly spoiled Diana trying to elope with a besotted teacher played very well by Patrick Sieler. The latter also plays many others effectively.

Julia Brothers creates excellent portraits of many characters, including a compassionate nurse of Myra Granberry. Jackson Davis gives an extraordinary performance as the academically critical old Dr. Bosworth who is being isolated by a daughter trying to make sure of her inheritance. His transformation at the hands of Theophilus is wonderful.

Taisia Nikonischenko has created gorgeous detailed 1920s summer frocks and great three-piece suits for the men. Annie Smart has designed a good-looking suggested veranda set that would be prevalent in the Newport area in the '20s. Lighting designer Michael Palumbo gives the set a summer feel.

Theophilus North plays at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto through August 12th. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Their next production will be the world premiere of Paul Gordon's musical, Emma, opening on August 22nd and running through September 16 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center.

Photo: David Allen


A Captivating Production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel

Carousel

When I was discharged from the United States Air Force during the summer of 1946, I headed immediately to the Majestic Theatre to see Rodgers and Hammerstein's second musical, Carousel. Since that time I have seen many productions of the esteemed classic musical, including the Theatre Royal Drury Lane production in 1950, the New York City Center revival of 1957, several professional touring companies and the brilliant and breathtaking Royal National Theatre revival in both London and New York.

Carousel was named as the best musical of the 20th century by Time Magazine in 1999 and I consider this the best of all Rodgers and Hammerstein scores, with such songs as "If I Loved You," "This Was A Real Nice Clambake," "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and the inspiring "You'll Never Walk Alone," just to name a few. It is a surprising departure for audiences accustomed to taking their Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals with a lot of sugar. The musical explores the attitudes of society and prejudice, social class and conduct, and it features a "hero" who is a wife beater and a "roustabout." Carousel is considered by many in the theatre community to be among the finest stage musicals ever written. The musical is rarely presented by a regional or semi-professional company since it is a mammoth undertaking.

Foothill Music Theatre is presenting the classic musical through August 19 at the Smithwick Theatre at Foothill College in the Los Altos Hill. This marks the first time I have seen a semi-professional production of this entrancing musical. Director Jay Manley has done himself proud by helming a cast of fifty in his emotionally riveting take on the Nicholas Hytner Royal National revival. The singers are wonderful, and the strong choreography by Tyler Risk is energizing, including the ballet sequence that is brilliantly danced by Sarah Blodgett. The sets by Joe Ragey are excellent, especially in opening sequence.

Director Jay Manley, choreographer Tyler Risk, set designer Joe Ragey and Lighting Designer Kurt Landisman have devised a spectacular opening based on the Royal National production to the melody of the "Carousel Waltz." It beings with factory girls in the cotton factory busy doing their work and looking with anguish at the clock. The scene changes to the large iron gate of the factory as the girls leave happily for the day. The scene then immediately morphs into a carnival with Billy Bigelow (Carmichael Blankenship) hawking a wonderful moving carousel. It is a superb opening for a regional theatre company.

Carmichael Blankenship displays fine singing and acting skills. However, on opening day the sound system was playing havoc with his rendition of "If I Loved You," though it cleared up for his powerful "Soliloquy." He is very effective in handling the lengthy song. Also, Blankenship, who has dance credits with Moving Arts and Peninsula Ballet, has wonderful dance moves in the ballet sequence in the second act. I just wish he had done more dancing with the superb Sarah Blodgett who plays the daughter in this sequence.

Mary Melnick is a charming Julie Jordan. She has good singing and acting skills, giving a pleasing rendition in the duet "If I Loved You." Julie has a feel for Billy's complex disposition and is the solid rock of goodness. Ms. Melnick gives a wonderful, heartfelt interpretation of "What's the Use of Wond'rin," with the female chorus providing good back-up. Katie Blodgett as Carrie Pipperidge has a bubbly voice, especially in "Mister Snow" and "When the Children Are Asleep." She gives a good, sly performance.

Michael Rhone puts a different spin on Enoch Snow. Most of the performances I have seen show Mr. Snow as somewhat of a buffoon. However, Rhone plays him as a solid, no-nonsense character. He has outstanding vocal chops when singing the melodic "When the Children Are Asleep" and "Geraniums in the Winder."  His voice is rich when singing the reprise of "Mister Snow." Ruth E. Stein as Nellie Fowler gives a powerful rendition of the haunting "You'll Never Walk Alone." Hank Lawson is very good as the gravel-voiced Jigger Craigin. Leslie Hardy Tamel as Mrs. Mullin is a perfect soul mate to the villainous Jigger. The rest of the large cast are effective in their respective roles.

Joe Ragey's scenic design and Kurt Landisman's lighting is splendid. Tyler Risk once again shows he is one of the best choreographers in the Bay Area with the energy-driven young chorus of dancers in "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and "A Real Nice Clambake." Catherine Snider leads a fine 15-piece orchestra to back up the singers and dancers.

Carousel plays at the Smithwick Theatre at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills through August 19th. For tickets call 650-949-7360, 24 hour charge by phone hotline at 650-949-7414 or visit www.foothillmusicals.com. There is a photo of Mike and Katie Blodgett in the background while Carmichael Blankenship laying on the ground and Mary Melnick over him in the foreground.

Photo: Nancy Fitzgerald


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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